The following article by Paul Hanley in Saskatoon’s The Star Phoenix succinctly lays out the benefits of organic farming and the issues with industrial farming. To summarize it in a nutshell, “We need to start paying farmers for ecological services, not just food. The money can come from repurposing perverse subsidies on fossil fuels and farming, estimated by the International Monetary Fund to be over $2 trillion a year worldwide.”
It’s been a good year for Saskatchewan’s organic farmers. First, prices for some organic crops are quadruple those of conventional grains. Second, due to the vagaries of the rail transportation system, organic growers have had more success getting their crop to market this year than conventional farmers. And since they do not use chemical inputs, costs are lower, resulting in higher net income. Actually, it’s been a good year for organic agriculture worldwide. The organic approach is gradually shedding the “it can’t feed the world” myth. In fact, report after report came out this year saying it may be the only way to feed the world, even as the population rises by 50 per cent over the course of this century.
According to the final report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, there are strong environmental arguments in favour of agroecology, a type of organic production that reduces the use of external inputs and maximizes resource efficiency through intercropping, recycling organic residues and agroforestry. (Find the report at http://www.srfood. org.) Agroecology also offers social and health benefits. Diverse farming systems contribute to better nutrition by providing varied diets for communities that produce their own food. Because agroecology reduces the cost of farming by minimizing expensive inputs, it improves the livelihoods of farming households, particularly the poorest. And because it is knowledge-intensive and generally more labour-intensive, it creates employment opportunities in rural areas. Though easier to implement on smaller-sized farms, De Schutter says agroecological techniques can also inspire reforms in how large production units operate. He argues that the one-dimensional quest to produce more food, which is the rational for high-input industrial agriculture, “crowds out” other objectives such as supplying diverse, culturally-acceptable food, supporting smallholders, sustaining soil and water resources, and raising food security within particularly vulnerable areas. That’s why his report calls for the world’s food systems to be “radically and democratically redesigned.” The idea that we need to poison the land and food with chemicals to produce enough to feed the world is wrong-headed. We already produce more than enough food. In fact, according to the Canadian resource expert Vaclav Smil, the current agri-food system could feed more than 10 billion people with no additional inputs. This could be done by increasing water and fertilizer efficiencies, reducing post-harvest losses, reducing food waste, and eating healthier diets. The problem of hunger is not one of supply, but of poverty. Most of the extreme poor are small farm families in low-income countries. This is also where most of the additional 3.7 billion people expected by century’s end will live. The hunger problem can be solved by helping these people to produce more food for local use. And according to De Schutter and others, the best way to do this is through agroecology, which works particularly well on the small holdings that produce about half the world’s food supply. He also explains that the policy of producing everhigher volumes of food for export from high-income countries has a crippling impact on small producers in low-income countries, which is a major cause of rural poverty and hunger. So the idea that farmers in Canada, the U.S. or Europe need to increase chemical inputs to boost production in order to feed the world is mistaken. It’s a myth told to build agribiz profits, not to feed the poor. Way back in the 1980s, Saskatoon’s late great ecologist Stan Rowe was a voice crying in the wilderness when he “risked martyrdom by voicing the thought that maybe, just maybe, good agricultural practice requires a decrease in production, not an increase.” By removing the burden of sole responsibility to feed the world, farmers in Saskatchewan and the other exporting countries can switch their focus to restoring ecosystem functions and producing the best quality, pesticide-free foods. We need to start paying farmers for ecological services, not just food. The money can come from repurposing perverse subsidies on fossil fuels and farming, estimated by the International Monetary Fund to be over $2 trillion a year worldwide.